Leni Riefenstahl and the art of running

Last week I went to our local gym to find out what age children have to be to qualify for the ‘under-five swim’. ‘Well, er, under five’, was the straight-forward reply. On further enquiry it sounds like the boy has to be about six weeks old before we take him to the pool. 

Having changed, I dived into the pool. It is still early enough in September for people to be on holiday, and there were only two other swimmers. I have always liked the sound of the word ‘floundering’, and regret not being able to use it more often. This is exactly the word to describe the girl – in her mid-20s – who was being talked through the motions of a breaststroke. There was no symmetry at all in her arm and leg movement, as though to be in the water was the most unnatural thing in the world.

Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi film-maker and alleged lover of Hitler was also the director of the most extraordinary documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Olympia. From seemingly impossible positions in and out of the water she captured beautifully the Olympic swimmers and divers as they entered the water, almost disregarding completely the competition, and showed just what grace the human form can take in water.

The diving sequence was the final and epic conclusion to Olympia, but Riefenstahl was also the first person to capture the ergonomics of the marathon runner on film. For the marathon sequence, tiny cameras were attached the runners’ necks to film their feet pounding the paved course, which captured the ordeal from as subjective a view-point as possible, delivering her preconceived notion of the athlete’s struggle – metronomic, radiant, and heroic. Long shots across wheat fields made the explicit connection between the runners and our natural state as creatures of motion. The music builds to an orgasmic crescendo as the trumpets sound to signal the runners’ entry into the stadium for the final lap. Music and runners then slow into a post-coital slumber. In the editing she then slowed the footage down to convey the onset of exhaustion, making the viewer feel the straining of the limbs as we watch it.  ‘I am the marathon!’ she explained as she sought to deliver the first person perspective of the event.

There is, of course, only one way to learn how to run and how to swim – to start early, while the instincts are still raw, and the tendency to over-think has yet to settle, but for those who come to either late, Olympia, for all its propaganda baggage, is as good a place as any to start.

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About Robin Harvie

I have been running marathons for ten years. But when I couldn't around faster than 3 hours 12 minutes, I decided to see how far I could run before I keeled over. Turns out pretty far. In September 2009 I took on the Spartathlon - 152 miles from Athens to Sparta. Non stop. Why We Run is about that journey and about why we run at all.
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